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N.19 takes sex shops upmarket in Gangnam

Jan 06,2018
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Top left: The entrance to the adult shop N.19 located in Garosu-gil in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. From top right: Condoms are neatly arranged at N.19 in a wide variety. Costumes on display on the fourth-floor “special nights” section of N.19. [SHIN IN-SEOP]
Two months ago, work began on a four-story retail shop in Garosugil, the trendy neighborhood in Sinsa District, southern Seoul, with no clue as to what it would sell. It looked like a show room for a global fashion brand.

The store opened in November and one step inside makes clear what kind of store it is: a purveyor of what used to be called marital aids, now known as sex toys.

A huge buzz began over N.19, as the store is called, as no sex shop in Seoul has ever been this big.

In the past, sex shops in Korea were hidden in shadowy alleys with windows covered from the inside so passersby couldn’t peek inside. There have been attempts to sell sex toys with fresh marketing strategies, but most were online. A video clip of N.19’s fancy interior went viral on social media in early December, and the number of visitors soared.

N.19’s owner is Blank TV, a local media start-up that creates social network videos for product marketing. Established in 2016, it is a leader in a field called “media commerce” or “V commerce” in Korea.

Media commerce is a new method of selling in the era of social media. Manufacturers without much brand value rely entirely on social media for advertising and marketing their products. It’s a strategy that works because a lot of impulsive purchases these days are sparked by short video clips on Facebook and Instagram.

Blank TV boasted of 10 billion won ($9.4 million) in revenues in its first year of business, largely from sales of a male cosmetics brand marketed with short, well-made video advertisements on social media. It made headlines in the business press last year when Japan’s Softbank invested 10 billion won in the company.

Blank TV chose sex toys and adult supplies for its first brick-and-mortar business.

Operation hours are noon to 9 p.m. from Tuesday through Sunday. Only people 19 or older are allowed in - that’s what the store’s name means - and an ID check is conducted on the first floor. The average number of visitors is 300 on weekdays and well over 1,000 on weekends.

A lot of people drop by out of curiosity or to take photos to post on social media, but many end up buying merchandise. Around 90 percent of the customers are couples in their early 20s to early 30s.

N.19 also has a website and about 60 percent of all its consumers on- and offline are women.

The ground floor offers basic items for couples like condoms, novelty items like playing cards with sexual positions drawn on them and lubricants.

The second floor is for ladies. There is a cabinet containing women’s sex toys decorated with the art of U.S. graffiti artist Keith Haring. One women’s sex toy was made to look like a lipstick and arranged as it would be in a cosmetics store. The products have fun, sculptural shapes and playful colors, reinforcing the idea of fun for a sex toy.

The third floor offers products for men and is designed on the theme of an old fitness center. Customers can feel the texture of the products and learn how to use them.

The fourth floor offers products or “special nights” - whips, costumes, collars - and is inspired by the designs of older airports. The space has mirrors and photo zones.

Blank TV’s goal is to make N.19 the Daiso of adult supplies. The basic idea was to build a destination store for people 19 years and older, inspired by Don Quijote, Japan’s largest discount store, which sells a dizzying variety of goods at cheap prices - including sex toys.

“We started from a simple motive of helping people to have a ‘fun relationship,’” said Lee Go-eun, who leads the N.19 project at Blank TV. “We too are surprised at the positive response we’re seeing. It was really unexpected.”

In September, Blank TV launched a condom brand called “Common Day” as sort of a test-run before opening the store. The manufactured amount sold out in the first three months. As a follow-up product, the company added lubricants to the line-up and plans to develop Common Day as an in-house brand at N.19.

The domestic market for adult goods is estimated to be around 200 billion won, but this is limited to contraceptives and birth control pills. The number would be double if toys and costumes are added.

“This industry has a rosy future - it’s hard to accurately say how big the market can get,” said Lee. “I’m sure we’re going to see more multi-brand sex shops like ours in the future possibly with more narrow concepts.”

Last year alone, more than 10 sex shops with modern, casual atmospheres opened in the Hongdae and Itaewon areas.

Retail specialists say young consumers are more open to discussions of sex and not embarrassed to see adult stores on main streets. It’s also a trend in the retail industry to open large stores that specialize in one product category.

“For millenials, it can be simply seen as another form of specialty store,” said Suh Yong-gu, a professor of business management at Sookmyung Women’s University. “It might not be very different for them to go to a sex shops as going to an ABC Mart for sneakers or Hi-Mart for electronics.

“And we live in an era in which retailers can only survive by operating both online and brick-and-mortar sales channels,” he continued. “This means we might see more of these [trendy] sex shops [that used to exist online] showing up on main streets.”


BY JEON YOUNG-SEON [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]